Maryland has passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, a sweeping crime reform bill that is coming into law in phases. One of the most anticipated new changes has to do with the expungement of criminal records. Many see it as an opportunity to start fresh, as the law creates opportunity to erase a criminal record where that opportunity did not previously exist.

What is Expungement

Expungement is the ability to have a criminal record, particularly convictions, erased from the public records. The benefit of expungements is that it allows people a better opportunity at a fresh start; the stigma that comes from a criminal record can make it difficult for people to find employment, or other opportunities.

Whenever drones, cameras, or other surveillance equipment are involved in our lives, the first question we usually have is how that technology will impact our right to privacy. This is particularly true when it comes to law enforcement, where the constitution provides us certain privacy rights, and restricts how and when the government can search our property.

Baltimore Police Using Overhead Surveillance

It was recently revealed that the Baltimore police department has been surveilling people from the sky, using a Cessna that was funded by a private donor. The news came as a surprise even to the mayor and the city council. Many are upset not just at the nature of the program, but over the allegation that it has been kept hidden for some period of time.

A recent article is bringing attention to a longstanding problem in our criminal justice system, not just in Maryland, but nationwide – overworked, underpaid, and overwhelmed, public defenders. The problem not only undermines the integrity of the system, but threatens the constitutional rights of accused defendants, as well.

What is a Public Defender?

The constitution guarantees those convicted of a crime the right to an attorney. As you may know from TV or movies, if someone cannot afford an attorney, the state will appoint an attorney for the defendant. Those appointed attorneys are public defenders, and they are paid by the state.

Juveniles and minors are certainly capable of committing crimes, just as adults are, and the criminal justice system has laws that are specially designed to handle juvenile offenders. Being a minor does not mean you give up any constitutional rights, but questions over how minors in Maryland’s criminal justice system are handled are currently causing some controversy.

Minors in the System

Generally, the criminal justice system treats minors differently than adults for a number of reasons. The first is that the law recognizes that minors are not fully formed in terms of logic, decision making, or maturity.

Constitutionality can often be a question of inches. What an officer does, or where he or she goes in the process of investigating or arresting someone can be the difference between evidence being constitutional and thus admissible or being excluded.

Officer Smells Drugs

A recent case dealt with the question of what happens when an officer’s head comes just inches too far into a defendant’s vehicle. The case arose when an officer stopped a man for speeding. When the man rolled down his window, the officer testified that he smelled an odor of marijuana when he learned his head into the car through the open window. Another officer was called to the scene, who conducted a scan with a trained police dog. The dog alerted officers to the presence of drugs, and the defendant himself admitted to it.

A judge has acquitted a Maryland law enforcement officer involved in the death of Freddie Gray. No matter how you feel about the ultimate decision, the case continues to provide teaching points about how our criminal justice system works.

One Interesting aspect of the recent acquittals is how it points out the differing standards between civil and criminal liability. Even though no officers were found guilty of any crime, we hear “beyond a reasonable doubt” a lot in TV and movies. But every now and then, we see it in action.

Facts of the Gray Case

The United States Supreme Court has once again defined the limits of the Fourth Amendment when it comes to what officers can and cannot do during a routine traffic stop. The decision, which potentially expands the scope of the police ability to search and seize, could have significant constitutional ramifications.

Man Stopped Illegally

The case involves a home in Utah, which police believed was being used to sell drugs. Police stopped a man who was in his car and had previously left that house to question him. The officer then checked the man’s license, and found there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Based on this, the police searched the car, found drug paraphernalia and methamphetamine, and arrested him.

We are all familiar with cross examination in trial—it seems to be the highlight of every legal TV show or televised trial. What you may not be aware of is that the constitution’s sixth amendment actually guarantees defendants a right to cross examine—that is, the right to question their accusers (or in criminal cases, the state and its witnesses).

Defendant has Probation Revoked

A recent Maryland appellate court case discusses the parameters of that right when it comes to a probation revocation hearing. The case involves a defendant who pleaded guilty to a robbery charge. His sentence involved probation. During his probation, he tested positive for marijuana,  thus violating his probation, and as a result was sentenced to serve prison time for the robbery.

In 2013, Maryland revoked the death penalty. That may have been because trials are imperfect, and thus, the possibility of taking an innocent person’s life is too great a risk. That left Maryland’s highest penalty being life without parole.

But with the change came a new problem—unlike there was with the death penalty, there are few standards that a judge or jury need to abide by to sentence someone to life. This potentially leaves what is known as the second most severe penalty in our American justice system to chance, risking inconsistent standards and uncertainty in sentencing.

Bill Seeks to Create Standards

Sometimes it is interesting to see how issues that look like they have nothing to do with criminal justice end up affecting criminal justice. Such was the case this week, when the United States Supreme Court made a ruling based upon whether Puerto Rico was a sovereign state or not.

Can Puerto Rico Prosecute?

We know that Puerto Rico is not a U.S. State. In fact, it has its own constitution and its own government, a power given to it by the United States in 1950. Still, the country is tied to the U.S. Federal Government and its powers are provided to it by the U.S. Essentially, Congress makes the rules. So can Puerto Rico prosecute someone who has already been prosecuted by a federal court without running afoul of the double jeopardy clause?